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Dean Keates – The 4 Way

So we had a chat.

Who wants to write something about the Keates era? It turns out we all did. 

Free reign, no pre-set questions – 4 guys sum up their view of the Dean Keates era and whilst they’re all pretty different there are common threads running through.

As usual it’s a cup flask of tea and a few packet of biscuits long so strap in, turn the phone off and here we go. All comments at the bottom are most welcome.

1. Mark

So what have we actually learned then??? Some thoughts about the sacking of Dean Keates.

Past – Cosy and Insular

It’ll be 25 years in September since the surprise sacking of Kenny Hibbitt and the equally surprising appointment of Chris Nicholl as his successor. A quarter of a flippin’ century since the first managerial change at our club under Jeff Bonser’s ownership. As a director since 1988 he must’ve been a part of the appointment of Hibbitt and John Barnwell but this was his first crack at making arguably the most important on-field decision at a football club.

Since then all but one of the 12 subsequent permanent managers have fitted into one of these categories:

Played for the club – Paul Merson, Kevin Broadhurst (briefly), Chris Hutchins, Dean Smith, Dean Keates (and we can add Martin O’Connor for the time being too)

Promoted from within – Merson, Jimmy Mullen, Smith and Jon Whitney (plus MOC)

Available and living locally  – Jan Sorensen, Colin Lee, Broadhurst and Sean O’Driscoll. (This was also Mullen’s status when he arrived as Assistant.)

Recommended by a predecessor – Sir Ray was a former team-mate of Nicholl who’d also done some coaching when he was in charge, O’Driscoll had worked closely with outgoing number 2 Richard O’Kelly

Only Richard Money is exempt from the pattern but interestingly, like Nicholl, he was the only appointment made with the club in the fourth tier.

Accusations of the cosy and insular nature of the club aren’t helped by an examination of our backroom staff either. Mart O’Connor himself has now had 3 different roles at the club to go with 4 spells (2 permanent and 2 loans) as a player. O’Kelly was Smith’s number 2 twice, Smith himself originally returned to head up the Youth set up, Dean Holden has had two brief coaching spells, Jimmy Walker was Goalkeeping Coach for a time, a role also filled ably by Mick Kearns. Nicholl has returned behind the scenes twice in 2001 and 2011, Whitney and Mick Halsall had more than one role at times and the hugely unpopular Paul Taylor was brought back by Jeff at what felt like the first available opportunity. Oh and David Kelly graced us with his presence for one whole game too.

Ok so there is an argument that the seemingly high return rate to the club, reflected in player turnover too, shows an affinity and affection for the Saddlers and that actually should be celebrated. (Let’s face it, it’s unlikely to be for financial reasons.)

But there are bigger questions that no fan can be blamed for asking.

  • What does this tell us about a club’s board that like to do things their own way?
  • What does it say about being open and receptive to new ideas?
  • What does it say about appeasing fans?
  • What does it say about being prepared for a bit of constructive criticism or home truths from the manager, who is after all the person at the club most in the firing line?

Present/Recent Past – Club Legend

Thankfully the bits of Social Media that I’ve seen since the weekend have overwhelmingly shown respect and sympathy for Dean Keates’ plight. Quite rightly fans want to remember DK for his performances on the pitch, the promotions, the silverware, the cup runs, the never-say-die attitude, the tenacity, the commitment, the wand of a left foot and perhaps most importantly the passion and pride every time he pulled on a Walsall shirt.

The fact that he was sacked almost immediately after the final whistle and on Club Legends Day (with former teammates sat in the stands) too made Dean’s departure all the more gut-wrenching. However I think that it speaks volumes for the character of Dean that, like any 50-50 (or 40-60 and the odd 30-70) tackle as a player, he didn’t shirk the challenge of managing Walsall and trying to move the club out of its current state of mediocrity.

Last March Dean was in his first full season at Wrexham, they were chasing the play-offs at a crucial stage of the season and, as they’ve had a long spell out of the League, was potentially on the verge of writing himself into their record books as a manager. It would have been easy for him to say it was too soon (as hindsight says it was) and to stay on at the Racecourse.

It was also a pretty desperate situation for a young, inexperienced manager to come into, we were in freefall down the league, the squad left behind by Jon Whitney (another guy who’d refused to turn his back on a challenge when he could’ve stayed in his comfort zone and preserved his cult status with the fans) was a mess and he would’ve known that there were certain players he’d be stuck with. And that’s before we consider the less-than-competitive playing budget that seems to have become the norm at the club.

Yet Dean Keates took it on, kept us up, put together the best squad he could and tried to give the team some form of identity. And for a couple of months it seemed to be working but when the wheels came off they came off big time. If you ever wondered in 2017/18 what the team would be like without Oztumer carrying it, then most of the performances from Xmas onwards gave you a pretty good idea. Sadly Dean didn’t have the experience to turn it round. He was dealt a rough hand but he never complained and he gave it his all.

Dean Keates is rightly considered a Saddlers legend as a player, he ought to be considered one for ever bothering to take on the role of manager too.

Future – The Interview Process

While I think we all know who has the final say, I’d love to know what the process will be, who’ll be doing it, what the job spec actually is and what the criteria for success will be.

But I’d like to think that any candidate worth having ought to be the one asking the question. I’d be asking about the budget, scouting and the youth set up.
The budget – Everyone in football knows it’s one of the lower ones in League One and allegedly it doesn’t compare well with plenty in League Two, but a prospective boss ought to be entitled to ask exactly how the club are going to take steps to improve it. Dean Smith was allowed to come up with his own blueprint and that seemed to work right up to the point that he left us in the lurch and the whole thing unravelled.
For a club with a fine and proud record of producing great young players, the production line seems to have ground to a worrying halt atm. Liam Kinsella and Liam Roberts are the only home-grown players to have played regularly this season. Kinsella made his debut in 2014 and has been with the club since his dad played for us over a decade ago, Roberts first signed a professional contract in 2014.

Sadly the answer to the question ‘Where are the next generation?’ is, with the exception of the unfortunate Kory Roberts, out on loan at local non-league clubs. Ideal preparation if you’re operating at Conference North level, but Walsall FC aren’t, not at the moment anyway.

The Reserves no longer play in a League, meaning the natural pathway to the first team is no longer there. This also has a negative impact for out of form fringe players who end up with nowhere to go – would Morgan Ferrier have benefitted from half a dozen games tormenting a second-string defence for example?

For the best part of two decades we had a youth system headed up by an ex-pro with experience, and presumably contacts, from other clubs. Mick Halsall was coveted by many others, Dean Smith was able to go on to better things and Neil Woods was well-respected. Since then the club promoted from within someone who’d never played the game professionally or worked anywhere else. No disrespect is meant but when you move from a system that works and the system stops working, questions need to be asked.

Which brings me on to the role of John Ward – wtaf is it to be precise. Brought in weeks before Smith doing a runner, Ward has now seen four managers depart. He’s clearly not seen as permanent manager material, or even as a caretaker – he only filled in as part of the triumvirate after Smith left and then it was Whitney who came to the forefront. Ward manages a reserve team that don’t play in a league and there has not been a single player come through to command, or even a challenge for, a first team place in the 3½ years he’s been at the club. It’s been suggested that he’s been an experienced sounding board for both Jon Whitney and Dean Keates- well that’s worked out well hasn’t it? What is the point of him being here? I can’t be the only one to think there is a parallel between him and a certain P.Taylor.

And what if we do find someone who can achieve some real success (ie more than just surviving at a level we’ve historically competed at longer than anyone else?) Our track record in this area is shocking – Ray Graydon was treated appallingly, Richard Money quickly worked out his ambitions were vastly different and, whatever we think of what he did and how he did it, Smith could see the writing on the wall.

With hindsight Dean Keates should’ve saved himself the bother and stopped at Wrexham and let the inevitable happen to someone else.

Back to the future we go.


2. Richard

After we lost to AFC Wimbledon in February, Gabriel Sutton of the excellent The Football Lab blog, wrote:

The position that a section of Walsall fans perhaps like to think they could be in, is not necessarily the same position that budget dictates to be their mean. That is perfectly natural, because there would be no point in football if supporters were not passionate about their club and wanted it to strive for something better. The flip side to that is it means many Saddlers managers have to slightly overachieve to be perceived as doing a par job and massively overachieve to be seen as doing a good one.

If we look at Walsall’s Expected Goals Ratio of 46.5% (before Tuesday’s game), that leaves them as the 17th-best performing team in League One – which is where they are currently in the table having played a game more. In terms of budget, they have the 17th highest attendances – and below them, Scunthorpe (due to Peter Swann), Fleetwood (Andy Pilley) and Burton (Championship income) are likely to have spent more. Of course, a run of two league wins in 17 is highly concerning and certainly, it is important the coaching team find a system to reduce the burden on Cook. Although a deserved defeat to the bottom side is hard to take, this blog would understand but disagree with the notion that it means there is anything fundamentally wrong at the club.

All of the numbers point towards our being an average, League 1 club. We have always been an average, League 1 club. We should accept that we are and always will be an average, League 1 club. We are told we are well run. We are told we punch above our weight. We are Walsall; Walsall we are. We know the numbers can tell us everything and nothing, devoid of context.

What was the context in which Dean Keates returned to Walsall? Years of stagnation in League 1; years of an apparent lack of investment rooted in the conservatism of the board following the intersecting realities of relegation from the Championship and the collapse of ITV Digital; the inability to instigate any kind of strategy to win over the supporters; years of apparent disconnection between the board and supporters; a rundown and both tired-looking and feeling ground on an out-of-town ring road; too few afternoons or nights of glory in over a decade; on-going and persistent failures of managerial appointments; a failure to create a meaningful scouting network or sustainable youth policy; years of being run by an apparently disconnected majority shareholder, who must be tired after over 30 years of this.

It was an impossible context. It was a context compounded by the inability of the majority shareholder to uncover a potential diamond of a novice manager in the mould of the heroic ex-player like Alan Buckley, or the gnarled old professional like Chris Nicholl (attempted again with O’Driscoll?), or the relatively anonymous but cheap Graydon or Coakley. The more I look at our appointments over the years I feel that we have succeeded more by luck than judgement – and maybe this is one of the truths of football at our level when there is such a managerial merry-go-round. The successes we have had grounded in the intersection of luck, a strong team ethic, clear patterns of play, and the connection between youth and experience.

Dean Keates had none of these. Yet Bonser chased him from two divisions below, unproven, but a reminder of past glories under this regime. The supporters generally lauded this approach, desperate and projecting every moment of that desperation onto Keates, a factor that Keates himself amplified by talking about providing a team of whom the town could be proud. We were all too invested in the idea of the heroic leader and yet the structures available simply wouldn’t support this. It wasn’t hubris – there was no self-confidence or overweening pride here. Rather, we hadn’t really done our due diligence, and we let the heart rule the head, and we let the heart tell the head that a managerial team from the National League could take over a club that had been stripped on the playing side since our failed play-off push, with a make do and mend approach implemented instead, and could be “successful”.

Whilst Sutton may be incorrect in thinking that nothing is fundamentally wrong at the club (given the number of questionable strategic and operational decisions, and the fact that accountability lies at the level of Walsall FC Ltd, rather than Walsall FC), there is something important in his point about what we as fans expect success to look like. Yet even here, Keates blew what possibilities and potentialities he had. The potential energy of the squad that he had at his disposal was wasted. The endless changes in formation, in order to try to halt ongoing losing streaks; the apparent falling out with players who would give their all at this level like Kinsella and Morris; the apparent falling out with players he had recruited like Ferrier; the almost constant changing of the guard in central midfield; the failure after early successes to outthink opponents, either tactically or in terms of substitutions; the reduction of play to long ball policies the overused Cook; the inability to tie the movement of Ginnelly, Ferrier, Zeli and Morris to meaningful patterns of play, in part because the defence was so fragile; the inability to create a defensive platform and the obsession with an ineffective 4-3-3; and on, and on.

So we have a litany of failures on the playing side. The first time in years we have a scouting network in place and yet our acquisition of loan signings has generally been a failure because they have been left to warm the bench. Players who excelled elsewhere, like Kane Wilson at Exeter, and Conor Ronan at Portsmouth, were unable to make a mark. Keates was unable to improve recruitment to reinforce the defence, and this was critical. Starting the season with a defence that we already doubted was a real issue. He was unable to find a midfield platform that would support that defence, or enable the possibilities we had in attack to flourish. As a result, Kinsella was marginalised and Dobson was asked to do too much, and both were outrageous because both will likely play at a higher level. As a side note, I wonder why a diminutive, cognitive midfielder and former hero-come-local-boy, would seek to marginalise players who mirrored him.

Keates was unable to build a team in his own image, or to recruit players who were battle-hardened. Perhaps it would have been different if we hadn’t lost key personnel – Kory Roberts to injury and Josh Ginnelly to Preston. It makes me realise just how over-reliant we were on Oz last year for survival, and just how lucky we were to have him, and just how wasted he has been at Bolton. Perhaps it would have been different if we hadn’t had such delayed recruitment in pre-season. Perhaps we all got carried away in the opening month or so of the season. Perhaps we didn’t see just how badly the wheels were going to come off after we got hammered at home by Doncaster Rovers. If only we could have found another way of playing when the chips were down, other than the long ball to Cook – the overreliance on a target man as the sole outlet, rather than the creative maestro is telling.

Beyond this inability to build a team, was his and his backroom team’s inability to train them appropriately. Our goal difference, goal scored and goals conceded are abysmal. We score every 84 minutes at an average of 1.07 per game. We concede every 55 minutes at an average of 1.65 a game. We concede 23% of our goals in the first 20 minutes (and score 16% of our goals in this period). By the half hour mark, we have conceded almost a third of our goals and scored 23%. We are abysmal away and we are abysmal at home – we have no hiding place or sanctuary. We don’t score; we are always chasing the game; we are not built to chase games; we have no creativity; we have no creative outlet because our defence is so weak; we are built, trained and managed to fail. As a result, Keates’ only consistency lay in losing streaks, and a failure to build confidence rooted in winning or keeping clean sheets.

So, I can’t help feeling that jump from the National League to League One was too much without a more experienced backroom staff. Keates may have been the man to pull the fan base together, but whether he was the right man at the wrong time is a moot point. Maybe it was too soon. Maybe the structures of the club continue to be fundamentally a problem for any potential manager. The only coherent narrative at Walsall appears to be stagnation in this division rooted in limited resources and almost constant managerial and playing overhaul. It’s exhausting. The failure of Dean Keates at Walsall represents that exhaustion.

For a while I have thought that the period from our promotion under Richard Money until now mirrored the period from 1963-79, when after we fell back into Division Three we burnt through managers and did nothing until relegation to Division Four. Then, of course, we had the Buckley bounce. I fear there will no such luck this time. I fear the incoherent management and disconnection from the fans; I fear the disconnect with the needs of the supporters for success, whatever that looks like; I fear the lack of a strategy. This is what I take from Dean Keates year or so in charge. An impossible job with impossible hopes, compounded by an inability to manage, recruit, train and problem solve. The lesson of our hail-Mary appointment of Dean Keates is that League 1 looks increasingly beyond us.


3. Darren

So here we are again. I have tried, in the last few days, to reconcile the last few years as somewhat of a repeating cycle:

Employ unproven manager with little to no track record and then ask them to work with a weak budget.

Repeat.

I thought this (a repeating cycle) was a reasonable metaphor for what’s going or gone on, however upon further introspections – I was wrong.

What we have here is a downward spiral of gross ineptitude, ignorance, apathy and shame. A cycle repeating itself suggests stability and equilibrium. Righting a wrong, LEARNING FROM IT, and then building back up.

What we have here is the opposite of that. The board are continually making bad decisions, not learning from past mistakes and leaving this writer wondering just how far we might fall.

What on Earth have we become?

How Stefan Gamble and Dan Mole can sit there and state “the aim is to get to the championship” is an insult to the intelligence of every single supporter of this great football club.

I could equally state that my aim is to befriend an 8-legged cocker-spaniel called Brian and fly to the moon on the back of a winged Zebra called Hephaestus. It’s not going to happen is it?

I don’t actually put all the blame on Keates. Sure, he is largely culpable for this desperate set of results over the last 6 months – but I can’t ignore the large millstone around his neck with regards the budget and the lack of any coherent plan. That comes from above.

I am above suspicion, in believing that he could not possibly believe how many players from the Whitney era were still contracted to the club. As I am suggesting, I think the total mismanagement of the first team under Jon Whitney’s tenure was part of this spiral. That should have ended a lot sooner than it was allowed to carry on for. It’s easy to blame Jon for that, but the fault once again sits with the board and our leader.

They passively let this happen.

As an aside, I also do not believe – for one second- that Dean would have wanted an overweight footballer from Forest Green who had played one game all season. I think this is evidence of the lack of budget for any competitive players. I also do not believe he wanted all these loan signings – he said as much in pre-season.

This leads me on to some of the players at the club. Nicky Devlin, Jon Guthrie, Luke Leahy – hang your heads in shame. You are the senior pros in that side – and have been part of the worst Walsall defence in our generation. You’re not as good as I suspect you think you are, and I cannot wait to move on from watching the same repeating mistakes every week. I am sick to death of it. Sure, others have been equally as inept – but this defence is abysmal.

So where does that leave us now? I feel sorry for Skip. He’s been put in the unenviable position of trying to sort this mess out with hardly any time to implant anything major. That said, what I expect is the players to be motivated and try. This is a bit of a controversial topic for myself, as I think being motivated should be a prerequisite for any professional football player. The fact they appear to have downed tools this season is a complete joke. Shame on them.

I have been scathing here, but these things need to be said. I haven’t spoken much about Dean because I think it’s just too sad.

One thing that has not happened in both JW and DK’s tenures is the emergence of youth prospects. We signed Mussa in January – where has he gone? Who is next on the conveyor belt from the youth team?

Jon Whitney mismanaged Hayles-Docherty, Candlin and others – DK showed a lack of any intent to blood in youngsters. I think it’s probably down to Dean not trusting them, but we built the club around our youth system under Dean Smith. This has fallen badly by the way side – and that needs addressing vehemently in the summer.

This leads me to the next appointment. I want the club to break this cycle, and appoint someone completely unconnected to the club, whom understands the lower leagues, whom believes in youth, and can find bargains in non-league and beyond. Basically, Paul Hurst.

Not Martin O’Connor.

The final thing to say is Dean will always be a club legend – that is for sure, but the one thing I want to forget forever is this:

Cameron Norman for Zeli Ismail when losing at home to 10 man Oxford.

*shudder*


4. Daz F

So clearly, it just wasn’t meant to be. It was one jump just a little too far for a man who during every stint in a Walsall shirt proved to be an expert leaper.

Too small? No.
Not good enough? No.
Will professional football be too physical? No
Will he struggle to bridge the 3rd level to 2nd level gap? No.
Is defeat an option? No
Are we going to settle for the L2 runners up spot? Fuck no.

Late on Saturday, with us struggling to even look capable of nicking an equaliser it dawned on me that Keates might not survive the summer recess. I’d been convinced that we’d left changing the manager too late for this season and irrespective of what division we were in Keates would get the opportunity to make head-roads into the opening skirmishes for 2019/20.

Then came Oxford’s job-killing 3rd. Irrespective of the fact that this was a goal conceded predominantly by chasing that elusive game leveller, the savage impact on the manager’s career wasn’t lost. I mentioned to those around me that might just finish Keates off and for about the first time in 25 years Jeff and I were clearly thinking along similar lines – which is very worrying. On a day where on-pitch direction and organisation were all over the place, Jeff unshielded his axe and swung mercilessly. He’d seen enough and whilst it had unquestionably been looming, the swiftness of the decision only added to the shock. Before the stadium was empty, Keates was gone.

I’m not going to lie, I desperately wanted Keates to succeed and unquestionably gave him significantly more rope than most Walsall managers. I knew the development of young players didn’t feel right, I knew that a player who gave us great service was essentially levered out, I knew our transfer activity was hopeless, I knew we weren’t improving individually or collectively, I knew he didn’t know his best team or formation, I knew we were hopeless at defending set pieces, gave penalties away like confetti and found clean sheets rarer than a dry floor in the Banks’s toilets. All of which I criticised Jon Whitney heavily for but never once posted similar sentiment at Keates. He’s a Walsall icon, he game me everything he had more than 250 times, he took me places I’d never been and he scored that goal. In my head I think I knew but it was my heart that always judged him. He’d earned the benefit of my doubt.

Similarly, the squad he inherited gave him breathing space. Oztumer was effectively checked out when Keates arrived and with his ace already in someone else’s pack he desperately needed a fresh deck. The post-play off reactive contract deals limited that opportunity and ridiculously Keates began the season with the same back four that wasn’t anywhere near good enough for most of the season before. Cook & Zeli apart, new signings arrived late, very late. and any opportunity Keates had to shape us in pre-season was long gone.

Did Keates hold his nerve and get the players he wanted or did he end up having to make do with what was left? I suspect that hindsight has answered this for us.  That miracle first month impressively masked deficiencies that never really went away.

As history has proved so often, the January transfer window was another absolute catastrophe. Whilst we were crying out for a midfielder who could contribute a few goals to the control that Kinsella and Dobson provided and a goalkeeper good enough to facilitate a rest for Liam Roberts we accumulated everything but.

Up front Mitchell Candlin had returned from an unsuccessful trail at Blackburn but his path to our first team became further blocked by Aramide Oteh’s 4 month stint of bench warming. Out wide we downgraded Morris & Ginnelly for Corey Blackett-Taylor (who has done OK) plus the one cross a month and inevitably injured Matt Jarvis. Midfield has been ‘bolstered’ by Omar Musa’s 3 minutes of first team action, whilst Scott Laird and Cameron Norman have been unable to oust the players they were bought in to challenge. The nonsense re-signing of Jack Fitzwater, days after replacing him with Dan Scarr, probably tops everything however, taking our loan contingent beyond what can be selected each week and essentially ending Conor Johnson’s contribution to our season. Both Johnson and Fitzwater looked much better than any of the other options we’ve seen at centre back yet we’ve utilised neither, which has been ridiculous.

On other platforms I’ve described our January activity as Mersonesque but the benefit of hindsight suggests that I’m thinking that I might have been slightly harsh. On Merson.

And whilst on the subject of transfers I don’t buy the notion that he’s spent more than other Walsall managers because the model we operate by has clearly changed. Keates had a budget and spent it, just as Whitney, Smith and those before them. Makris was the first of the new era – pay a transfer fee & control wages. If it doesn’t work out cut your losses on a player whose wage doesn’t frighten others.

Whilst the lack of a credible goalkeeping option to Roberts was his biggest error inwards, the sale of Josh Ginnelly was unquestionably his greatest mistake in the opposite direction. The slump may have begun before Gino departed but we’re not the only teams to have ended games with Pompey, Luton, Charlton and Doncaster empty handed. Ginnelly was our outlet, a player with whom the ball stuck and had the ability to move us 15 or 20 yards up the field. His delivery into the box was decent and he epitomised the vibe that excited us all in late autumn. I get Ginnelly would have wanted to go but he was contracted to us, sulking would’ve ended Championship ambition and he could’ve signed a pre contract with PNE on Feb 1st anyway. However much Preston forked out for his services it was nothing in comparison to what it cost Keates, because he lost his job on the back of it.

That said, there are many remaining players who need to take a long and deep look at themselves. I can forgive the lack of ability – if you’re not good enough then you’re not good enough – but defeat has been an all-too easy option for more than a few. Maybe I’ve been spoiled over the years by the likes of Keates, Viveash, Marsh, Rammell, Green and Walker but the dressing room might have been a more challenging place had a few of these been 20 years younger. Only Cook, Dobson, Kinsella, Gordon, Devlin and Leahy show any semblance of disgust at defeat or goal concession. As a team, conceding should be far more unaccepted than it is. I’d suggest it’s because they aren’t paid enough or their contracts aren’t long enough to care but neither were the older players mentioned. They just did.

I also doubt many of the above had their manager on their Xmas card list either, but they still produced for him. Every single fucking week. And none would’ve had the bare faced nerve to ‘like’ the social media post confirming their manager’s exit either, which in itself was utterly outrageous. I very much look forward to liking the social media post when we confirm we’re not renewing that particular player’s contract because he’s finished in my eyes.

In the end it all became a painful watch. Keates short of ideas and long on players waiting to jump ship. He has appeared crestfallen, almost broken for quite a while now, unable to turn what became an all-encompassing tide of disappointment and defeat. In his playing days he’d have run further, tackled more and fought harder but, from the sidelines, he can only do this through his players and this just hasn’t happened. They either can’t change, don’t want to change or Keates didn’t know how to.

15 defeats in the last 21 games, conceding an average of more than 2 goals per game over that period inescapably dreadful, especially in a results driven business. For those not around in 1989/90 it’s like that Sunderland sandwich run (15 defeats on the spin) with the win at Gillingham and a decent fortnight softening the desperation. Having to score 2 or 3 per game just to get a draw is unsustainable both in terms of league status and managerial job security, especially when you’re averaging a smidgen over 1 every 90 minutes across the same period.

Similarly, you can’t ignore how weak our substitutions and tactical changes have been. Always late, rarely effective and on the whole reactive rather than proactive it’s an area of the game that Keates will need to improve when he gets his next managerial opportunity.

A bit of luck might also help because there hasn’t been much of it going his way of late. The travesty of Barnsley’s win, Doncaster’s opener, ridiculous penalties here, there & just about everywhere to name but a few. However, you make your own luck. Convert late spot kicks at Blackpool & Peterborough and you get the three points lost against Barnsley straight back.

And so he’s gone, the man I think we all wanted to succeed leaves prematurely, burned by a season he just couldn’t turn around. What started off so brightly, concluded depressingly dismally and we find our season perched somewhere between the ending of the Italian Job and Thelma & Louise. Either way it doesn’t look great.

Time will heal emotions and I hope that when the dust settles we remember that Dean gave up a decent job to come here and attempt to give us and him the team and club that we all wanted. His team, our team. He didn’t get anywhere near achieving this but I doubt it was for the want of trying. Lack of effort is something you could never level at Dean Keates.

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False Tears – Blog Statement.

False Tears – Blog Statement.

Following confirmation of the club’s relegation to League Two, we would like to place on record our faux disappointment and direct our blame for the current malaise at the board and their champions. We’ll also pretend to feel the disappointment felt by our readers.

We started the season unprepared with the guys Dean couldn’t offload last summer and a load of players scraped together on the eve of the first game. We then surprised everyone, including us, by occupying what proved to be a false position of fifth place at the beginning of October. Results took a significant downturn in the following months and this led to manager Dean Keates carrying the can for long term whole-Club failings in April and has culminated in yesterday’s relegation, concluding 11 years of League One mediocrity and one missed opportunity.

We insincerely concur with fans’ frustrations, and whilst we know that relegation is not an acceptable outcome for the season, we expect supporters to overlook the fact that it has loomed large for much of this decade.  We too can suggest we are deeply hurt by what has happened, because they’re just words. And words are just about as pointless as we were between January & March.

Focus will now turn to the short and medium term. We wish the Club’s hierarchy the very best in locating a manager capable of working with the traditional budgetary straight jacket, something that they’ve not been great at finding of late. However the law of averages must be on their side this time so maybe they’ll luck-out on a guy who can sew together silk purses from sows ear budgets, possibly string a couple of home wins together and avoid the annual January car-crash transfer window.

We also feel it’s important to add a bit of wishy washy nonsense about getting back to League One as swiftly as possible and pretend that we believe there’ll be sleep lost amongst those who rightly should be embarrassed by the mess they have allowed to evolve. We feel it is important to reiterate that our ambition is still to provide Championship blogging and yesterday’s disappointment won’t stop us regularly churning out such rubbish.

We will also pretend not to notice that those fans who heeded past advice to follow Luton & Bournemouth had much better days again yesterday.

Finally, we felt there might be value in dropping a heart wrenching, loyalty grabbing couple of words that might make it feel like we care at this frustrating time. But we really couldn’t be bothered, as we know you’ll all be back in August irrespective of the level of writing.  On this basis all we can offer is #FalseTears & #RentPaid

Sincere apologies for not pre-preparing this ghost written nonsense in advance of yesterday, and dropping the link out as you guys were leaving the stadium. We should care about you and have standards that reflect this but………. well, you know.

The “Ear Cuppers” and I

I’ve been provoked into writing an article with such a silly title in relation to a few recent singular incidents. I’ve also been reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes of late.

I am utterly appalled. I am outraged that our ‘team’ has turned into a bunch of mercenaries who disrespect this club and fans with their performances, actions, and social media posts.

Just ban the players from using social media.

Let’s cycle through a few recent incidents shall we? But first, look back at the disgraceful performance at Accrington. A lack of effort, desire, motivation, etc. You name it – we didn’t have it.

We then have Andy Cook antagonising supporters and having to be held back.

We have Gordon getting sent off (with two stupid bookings in a matter of minutes).

We also then, only a couple of hours after such a devastating and anger-inducing result – Luke Leahy liking social media posts about Coventry winning at Sunderland.

We also have had the spate of ‘Ear Cupping’ celebrations from Josh Gordon and Nicky Devlin that haven’t gone unchecked. Yes, Nicky runs around a bit – but let’s not forget that celebration – and 15 mins later him playing a forward onside to scoring their winning goal. I don’t buy it.

We then have, just now, resident social media antagoniser, Luke Leahy, posting photos with sarcastic references to his performances. He’s done this before – most notably posting in Central Perk (NYC), and the infamous ‘your shit Leahy’ photo with some positive stats about how many lesser spotted Woodpecker’s he had spotted in 27 minutes whilst balancing a frog on a leopard’s back…. or something equally unimportant. The sooner he is gone the better. I’d rather play Kofi Dakinah at left back.

We then also have Morgan Ferrier actually ‘liking’ a club statement confirming Dean Keates had been sacked. The same club legend, that plucked Morgan from non-league obscurity. I hope he never plays for us again.

I know some of these sound petty. But they show either a lack of intelligence, or a lack of respect. Who in the right mind would post an antagonistic photo, days after one of the worst Walsall performances in recent memory? Are these players trained with the media? Are they just that full of themselves that they genuinely think they have earned the right to take the piss out of us?

I am livid. I am fed up of these players.

Poison

There is a poisonous attitude now at Walsall – and I believe this current crop of players have absolutely no respect for this football club – and as such, the people who pay their actual wages, us. The fans.

We are the lifeblood of this football club. The fact we had stuck with Dean (and by proxy the club, and players) through what I believe are the worst set of results in 30 years is testament to how dedicated, passionate and deserving we all are.

We do not deserve this.

We have had to put up with some right old rubbish (I could have used much stronger terminology) over the last 15 years. But here we are now, on the cusp of relegation, with a fan base let down, fractured, and angry. A board who are more interested in bringing back Joe Longthorne, creating a ‘Fan Zone’ that looks more like a kids indoor play area like ‘Crash Bang Wallop’, and a Chairman who hasn’t got the decency to talk to and explain where this club is, and where it is going.

So what happens next? The cynic in me thinks that if we fluke a win against equally as awful Southend – we will get the ear cupping, and the usual sarcastic clapping and social media posts.

What I want to see is those players go some way to paying back the supporters who have stuck with them (by large) through this period. Show your passion, show you are motivated and will fight for this club.

… Now pass that horse tranquiliser. I’ve got some Bryan Adams to listen to with my hobnobs.

The Self Preservation Society (or not)

August 2018 – “Smile like you Dean it

Opening line – “I know that it’s early and we really shouldn’t be getting too far in front of ourselves but the smiles are back”

Well that blog aged well…

The air around the Banks’s increasingly has an essence of doom emanating as this season evolves, and no, that isn’t just the lower tier bogs. The feeling that this may be the season where we take the plunge into league 2 is unmistakable.

Walsall are the almost ever present third division side; more games played, more won, more lost, more draws, more goals scored and more goals conceded than any other team in English football. Only Bournemouth deny us every record – most away wins (10 more). However, over the previous few years it has become increasingly obvious to me that we support a club which is no longer a suitable fit its league partner.

I watched the Italian Job yesterday evening and it was so apparent to me that the cliff hanger ending was the perfect description to shape around this blog.

The Bonser master plan has driven the Walsall FC van up & down several mountain passes but currently appears to have beached itself on a cliff edge. The uncompetitive team budget we’ve seen over several years has seen the gold inside the van sliding further towards the rear, threatening to topple the supporters inside off the edge of the cliff. At a similar hairpin bend last season the board recognised the threat, placed Dean Keates in the drivers seat and asked him to to stabilise us, which he did.

However, it is becoming pretty evident that the current chassis is a write-off and our back two tyres are a bit too far off the edge that arguably no manager can drive us out of te situation we again find ourselves facing. This feels like the season that the gold stash wins and we finally take the plunge into the abyss.

And yes, the Fourth Division is an abyss. Take a quick scan of the teams who have gone down in previous years and remained there or fallen lower. Cr*we, Swindon, Yeovil, Notts County, Port Vale, Chesterfield, Leyton Orient to name but a few. The footballing landscape has changed and our status has shrunken to the point where we won’t be a big club in L2 terms, like we have previously. I’d certainly suggest that relegation could prove a tougher beast to recover from than it proved between 2006 & 2007.

How did we get here?

Initially Keates brought organisation, stability and a ‘bodies on the line’ ethos. Much like the Italian Job, we may not have won any footballing golden globes for pretty football in that time, but we were amassing points. Nothing epitomised this ethos more than the 1-1 draw away at Bradford to secure our safety last season. At a ground where most Walsall fans could write horror stories about the defeats suffered there in previous years, we were nervous and always had one eye on the clock but never looked close to getting beat.

Similarly at Wimbledon earlier this season. They hammered us for 60 minutes, but we defended with determination and organisation from the front. We broke quickly, everyone seemed to know their role and we managed to literally “grind out” a 3-1 win. A score line which may not have reflected how close the teams were on the night, but one which our hard work deserved. It was simple and straightforward – do the job that you’ve been tasked with to the best of your ability. 100% commitment with no compromise.

And this is where we have lost our way. We have lost our footballing identity. I watched us at Coventry yesterday and in the pre-match build up Keates discussed “imposing our style of play onto them”. What was our actual style of play? What is our game plan? What is our identity? What are we trying to achieve?

Before we even kicked a ball this season Keates was talking about the importance of training ground work, making sure that everyone knew their jobs, distances between lines, making sure the shape was correct, ensuring we provided service to Cookie.

Go and look at the highlights from the Wimbledon on Tuesday night. Where is the shape? Where are the back 4? Where are the blocks? Who is marking who? What even is zonal marking?! Back in August I struggle to recall any team cutting us open and playing directly through the middle of us. Yet we were cut open countless times yesterday, to the point where Coventry began trying to walk the ball into the net. Had it not been for Liam Roberts, it could have – and should have – been far worse.

We are conceding goals with more than a sense of inevitability now. And when we do, we simply pick the ball out of the net, turn and walk back to kick off again. We are no longer hard to beat, all the opposition need to do is to not self-destruct and wait for our error(s). Because it comes once, twice or three times per game.

Before Gillingham, our last clean sheet in the league came against Fleetwood in mid-November. At the time I classed that as a classic “good point away from home”. I would do anything for one of those right now. The maths is simple, we cannot continue needing to score once or twice for a draw and three times to win game of football. We’re so limited in possession that any reliance on this thinking is beyond laughable. Put simply, we won’t outscore anyone regularly and are simply crying out for a couple of 1-0 shut outs. I appreciate the manager’s comments about ‘individual errors costing the team’ and ‘fine margins’, however when we have amassed only 7 clean sheets in 42 league games, I struggle to see how Keates can continue to coin that evaluation.

Adding to this problem – and much to my frustration – is that our panic default setting appears to be to kick long balls into the channel. A pioneering “tactic” employed for much of the maligned Whitney reign means that Andy Cook is void of any kind of workable service. Since his hat-trick against Gillingham, Cookie has had 2 shots on target in 5 games, both coming against Plymouth. Inevitably, when Cookie doesn’t score, we lose. Again, I tried to find a semblance of method of play or tactic to feed our top scorer yesterday at the Ricoh, but we look void of ideas.

We are desperately lacking in midfield – be that in creativity or defending. On Tuesday night, we looked scared to receive the ball and inept of ideas when we did. Since Josh Ginnelly left for Preston we have lacked an outlet, someone who is not afraid to receive the ball on the half turn and drag the team up the pitch – an Oztumer, a Sawyers, a George Evans. Ginnelly’s role was a key part of our success in the early season and quite simply, we did not address the issue in the January window with the remotest consideration of what Preston were taking from us.

I’ve seen fans state that Keates was backed in January – and I agree to an extent. But given our budget and knowledge of the current wage structure, it was always going to be pittance whilst the high earners remained at the club. Without naming names, some of the club’s top earners are simply not good enough, but until contracts run out how do we offload them? They certainly were not going to attract anyone in this or the division higher and only a further wage rise would’ve seen them playing in the division below. Which wasn’t going to happen.

More broadly, our recruitment has been poor for a few seasons now and given January’s latest additions, Keates cannot be exempt from this criticism either. Since the opening game against Wimbledon in 2016, Walsall have used 61 different players in the two and a half years that spanned Tuesday night’s game against the same opposition.

Take the defence as a prime example. Since the Barnsley play-off games, Walsall have used 12 different centre halves, 7 on short loan deals (excluding Fitzwater’s 3 separate deals), 2 on long term deals (Guthrie and Scarr), 2 academy graduates (Preston and Roberts) and Russell Martin – add your own category description here. All of the above omits the additional Krystian Bielik saga, and we wonder why we are inept at defending.

In the same two and a half years we have signed 22 different players on loan, with only a handful making anything like a meaningful contribution. Many were awful, pointless additions and quite frankly if you can name them all without a pen & paper I will buy you a beer – answers at the end.

We surely cannot continue to operate in this current transfer policy – what that actually is, I am still unable to decide.

Conversely, the Dean Smith era, as it progressed, bought absolute clarity in this area. We were all about developing players; bringing players in, improving them, moving them on to better clubs, attracting more players, repeat. Whilst Keates has showed that he can delve into the Conference for a player, I am unsure as to how long we can continue to pull these off as he becomes further detached from his Wrexham roots. As for other players, it seems we are simply trying to find players that “might” do a job for us, but I cannot decipher a clear aim or mould of player whom we are trying to attract or develop. And incidentally, the continual reliance to sign previous players, relative unknowns to Keates, like Scott Laird and Isiah Osbourne makes me wonder who is actually recruiting the players at this club.

And whilst we are unable to bring quality players in, a club like Walsall should have a thriving youth team set up…. Right? Joe Masi talked a lot about this on the recent (& excellent) Bescot Beat too and I would encourage anyone to take a listen. Currently Walsall do not have an under-23 side that plays regular competition football. How therefore, can a team with our budgetary restrictions and so reliant on bringing young players through the system and into the first team, achieve this when they play a Birmingham Senior Cup tie once every 6 weeks? The system we operate in is fundamentally flawed and this was amplified by allowing Blackburn a 6-month trial period on Mitchell Candlin, which essentially evolved into a head to head look-see with arguably our hottest prospect. Incidentally, Blackburn did eventually invest in a different 19-year old prospect in January, from Nottingham Forest, but it you think Candlin’s value or future has benefited from the months wasted with Blackburn I’d suggest you think again. Similarly, I look at the likes of Maz Kouyhar, Dan Vann, Dylan Parker, Alfie Bates, Callum Cockerill-Mollet, Jordon Sangha; what do we do with our academy players and how do we improve them if their chances are blocked by our constant loaning of other club’s young talent.

In essence I can’t escape the feeling that things at Walsall have deteriorated significantly, both on and off the pitch. Despite not (yet) being in the relegation zone we feel so far over the edge of the League One cliff now that I am not sure how we get 4 wheels back onto tarmac. Yet whilst things have deteriorated result-wise since the middle of the season, I find it impossible to not conclude that our problems run much deeper. And whilst I sat and watched us “contest” 90 minutes of football at Coventry yesterday, potentially the worst part of my day was witnessing a little boy walking down under the stand at half time asking his dad when they could leave. To his dad’s reply of “there’s still another 45 minutes left” he simply replied “why”. Young fans are the future of this club, yet everywhere I looked yesterday was older fans – dads, not lads. Our message and attraction to the youth of the Town lost in cheaper, more attractive options in all directions. Without young fans, it is hard to see how and where we move forwards.

Increasingly I watch Walsall and question if ever, rather than when our next upwards move out of this Division might be. And whilst our club “ambition” states otherwise, such a question has become increasingly rhetorical over the previous two and a half years. Harsh realities must be faced; we operate with players, a budget and recruitment policies which I fail to see how they’ll ever make us competitive again. The now regular relegation fights do little to persuade me to conclude differently. We all know that even if Keates steers us away from relegation this season, a summer of exodus awaits and we return to square one, again. And the same can still be said if we sack him.

Unfortunately I struggle to see how we return from this current malaise without having to go much further backwards first. The FOOTBALL Club feels lost, adrift and short of direction and funding. It’s early 21st century mojo long since lost and I see no early or easy conclusion to the suffocation.

But at least we’re turning profits eh….

——- ——- ——-

Walsall loan signings since Barnsley PO games

Kane Wilson, Corey Blackett-Taylor, Connor Ronan, James Wilson, Aramide Oteh, Jack Fitzwater, Justin Shaibu, Tyler Roberts, Dan Agyei, Eoghan O’Connell, Kevin Toner, Josh Ginnelly, George Dobson, Scott Laird, Will Randall, Zeli Ismail, Connor Johnson, Shaun Donnellan, Krystian Beilik, Julian N’Goy, Jason McCarthy, Matt Jarvis.

Sn 50: Protest and A Call to Arms

Once again we find ourselves in the same situation. Groundhog Day at Walsall’s FC is concern and resentment of situations both on and off the pitch in January.

So where do we begin? This is basically a general grumble about things on and off the pitch, culminating in a call to arms. I start off discussing current ongoing on and off the field at Walsall before highlighting how and why we should protest. So let’s jump in.

On the field

First off, I want to straight away tell you that Dean Keates is a hero of mine, and we should all be biased. The days and memories he has given this football club make him a bonafide club legend. We should back him now, because it’s clear he is not being helped by a plethora of issues that won’t be sorted this season – let alone next. That is not to say he should be immune from criticism – far from it. There have been some baffling substitutions, excessive tinkering, and poor performances.

No question. However, I argue here they are symptomatic of the present situation at Walsall FC – and not purely down to him. Anyone saying ‘KEATES OUT’ (or Kents) right now – please, take a breather, a calmomile tea and direct your gaze towards the omnishambles happening off the field.

Dean Keates inherited a squad lacking in quality, passion, balance and adequacy. Players are under contract still, that are on ridiculous wages – but league two standard. I don’t want to highlight individuals in this blog, but I’m going to.

I would be very surprised if Luke Leahy, Nicky Devlin, Jon Guthrie, Kieron Morris (and his mom), Russell Martin, Adam Chambers, Isaiah Osbourne, Zeli Ismail, and Maz Kouyar are here next season. That’s a lot of money tied up in wages for senior players that are either not good enough, over the hill, or failed to live up to the hype.

That leaves us with a senior squad of:

Liam Roberts, Kory Roberts, Joe Edwards, Liam Kinsella, George Dobson, Andy Cook, Josh Gordon, Morgan Ferrier.

I think we should be both nervous and positive about that situation. There is a core there of good, young players, but with the wages freed up, we can let Keates give his real stamp on this side. Let’s just hope we are in League One, eh?

Off the field 

Right, the board. How much more do we have to accept this shambles?

The club is reaping what it has sown over the past 20 years:

  • No communication with the supporters in any meaningful or serious way.
  • No sense of community spirit or comaraderie.
  • A chairman who doesn’t attend fan meetings because he is scared, afraid, not bothered. Doesn’t talk in the press, gives statements on vision of the club.
  • Lost connection between the supporters and players.
  • Ticket pricing policy that is ridiculous.
  • More bothered about Roy Chubby Brown being on in the Bonser suite than being a progressive league One club.
  • The match day atmosphere being pathetic.
  • The continued state of the match day facilities at the club.
  • Embarrassing PR and media communications (bar the Dale Moon Period).
  • ”Welcome back to the pitch, the pride of the Midlands, the Super Saddlers” Embarrassing.
  • The Pension fund and all that entails (too much for one blog).
  • Refusal to expand wage budget (from 50/50) in service of the club’s off field activities and infrastructure.

The list could go on. But in summary, there is a general apathy towards anything football related –  by the club which transmits to the supporters. I get the feeling they just consider us customers, helots, and the great unwashed. Any suggestions made at meetings are brushed aside, not acted upon, or acknowledged.

Where is the passion and sense of what Walsall FC means to the community and fans?

Protest?

I think there should be concerted and impactful protesting that does not let up. It should be relentless. If people only protest when results are poor – then it’s absolutely pointless, and it looks hollow.

The issues at the club should be independent of what’s going on the pitch. That said, we know they interact. I don’t think it’s any surprise that we had a better image, positivity and good feeling when Dale Moon was in charge of PR. The club was more professional, engaged fans with better content. Contrast this with the media moguls over the past 2 seasons and it’s embarrassing. Go and watch the 2018 review video and tell me if you think west coast Hip hop is representative of the people of Walsall.

It’s not just incidents like this which cause a football club to be branded unprofessional and tin pot. Its not just the Dale Moon love-in.

It’s death by a thousand cuts.

The sewer-like toilets on match day, the prrrrride of the midlands rubbish, lack of atmosphere, crap burnt pies, no press engagement from the board, paying over a grand a day to have the pleasure of playing on our own pitch, banning of supporters, expensive ticketing, no vision, no planning, etc., the list goes on all add up and leaves us angry and depressed. And that’s all without what is going on the pitch too.

There can only be true change when the club moved forward with new owners.

So what might a protest look like?

First of all, the following is not diminishing previous protest attempts, but here are some suggestions for getting people on board this time:

  • State the aim of the protests right away
  • Concentrate on one issue to begin with that is easy to relate to, and doesn’t require any serious investment in time.
  • Get in the ground, flags, and sing “Where’s the money gone?”
  • Must reiterate – it must be kept simple to begin with. Engage people, let people know what’s happening, and it will snowball. Think about more dramatic and ambitious protests when there is a strong and relentless support behind it.
  • Keep it up. Don’t stop when we are winning. Make sure you back the lads, and make that obvious. Sing before the game, at half time, and at full time (or it’s generally awful).
  • Produce a PDF image with ‘10 reasons why…’ we are protesting. Share it on social media, by message, send it to the press.

I am no marketeer, but I have learnt a lot from previous protests. If you have passion for the club, then let it known in as visceral and raw way as possible. Be an anarchist of sorts at games, tell them that you’re not happy.

Don’t sit on your hands and complain after – be the mechanism of change.

Some might say, “What do you expect to happen?”. We know Bonser has his claws deep within the club with the pension fund, and as such stadium being separate to the club. It would take a large benefactor to purchase both (which may not be a huge problem as the club is almost worthless financially).

What protesting can do, is force a change in mentality. Pressure and the will to see a better future for Walsall, might be the butterfly that flaps its wings in the Atlantic, and causes a hurricane in the Pacific.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smile like you Dean it.

I know that it’s early and we really shouldn’t be getting too far in front of ourselves but the smiles are back and everyone seems to be looking forward to games again. The vibe, the promise, the hope, the football, the reciprocated respect – they’re all there. Whisper it quietly, but I think that we’ve re-found our mojo.

I had a text from my son on March 15th. “It looks like it’s going to be Dean Keates. What do you reckon?”

“There’s no point asking me” I replied. “Integral part of the Graydon miracle, 250+ appearances, captain, leader, Swindon away, Walsall boy, Walsall fan, icon – how can I judge that impartially?”

Indeed, how do we judge him impartially? In truth, I guess we shouldn’t even bother trying and just go with something that genuinely looks like a team that represents pretty much everything that this football club is about.

In truth, there was part of me that wanted neither of Adrian Viveash or Dean Keates when Jeff belatedly saw the wood from the trees and finally ended the misery under the previous incumbent. I hold both men in the very highest regard and wanted it to stay that way. Their service to this football club was magnificent and I didn’t want either legacy to suffer from struggling to piece together a silk purse from their sow’s ear of a managerial budget. Whilst the prospect of both, two bona-fide Walsall winners, truly excited me the fear of failure was equally concerning and I wanted them remembered for what they were. Stalwarts and winners, players who gave everything for the shirt, genuinely hated losing and improved our Football Club.

However, from the very moment that his appointment was announced, Keates began to allay these fears. With last season in its final furlong, our form dreadful and our place in the division under genuine threat I think it’s safe to conclude that time wasn’t exactly on Dean’s side. With the January transfer window long closed and unquestionably wasted and arguably our most effective midfielder ruled out for the season any improvement had to come from inside. Inheriting a squad that was on its knees, desperately short of experience, shot of confidence, unhealthily reliant on the creativity of one want-away player and (deservedly) lacking a significant level of respect from supporters just getting us over the season ending League One finishing line looked like a major challenge.

Wigan’s visit, a few days into his reign, was a free hit for Keates. I know that a few wondered if we could afford a manager sitting in the seats with what looked like a hands off approach. With so few opportunities left to generate points should Keates have been pitch side? To be honest I’m not sure it would have mattered, Wigan were levels above where we were, won without moving beyond second gear and therefore sitting in the stand learning was probably the best decision for the nine game fight ahead.

Those following nine games were horrible. Just two wins were generated, both last minute home victories against teams that would be relegated with draws at similarly relegated Oldham and the mathematically defining point at Bradford being the only positive returns.

Results proved just about enough, but things were already different however. The Keates effect was delivering much needed change.

Whitney’s Walsall could’ve gone and played Oldham a dozen times on that bitterly cold April night and would have lost them all. The Keates version led then, after being pulled back, refused to buckle as Oldham made the most of the strong wind in their backs and pinned us uncomfortably deep in our own half. Essentially we ended the game with an 8-1-1 formation spread across our 18 yard line, throwing bodies at every loose ball or shot, blocking crosses, limiting space, scrapping tooth and nail for the result that they eventually ground out. They dug in and just fought like they knew they couldn’t afford lose, which they simply couldn’t and collected a priceless point that they properly earned. Forget energy, effort & application – this was mutual responsibility mixed with organisation, work ethic and a willingness to fight as hard as they possibly could for each other and the badge on their shirt.

Ironically, at the venue where Whitney’s inherited team arguably blew their automatic promotion chances two years earlier this was unquestionably the evening where the team that he left behind rediscovered their backbone. They had re-calibrated their levels.

The dynamic attacking first half display against Wimbledon offered an insight into what post July would bring and had the referee not lost his head with the ridiculous last minute penalty decision in that game things might have been a lot more comfortable over the final stretch. Similarly we fought like we hadn’t remotely managed during the winter months in a tough loss at Scunthorpe. We were balanced, defensively tight, committed and really unlucky. The fulsome applause at the end signalling that the fractured levels of respect needed between pitch and terrace (yes, I’m showing my age) was mending. Likewise the mission accomplished, no-fucking-way-are-we-losing-here point at Bradford proved their capabilities, repeated the post-game two-way respect and confirmed the obvious.

That the Walsall we want and love were on their way back.

Fleetwood was year zero for the Keates era. He gave his fringe players 90 minutes to convince him or change his mind about them and essentially to a man they all failed. Keates made it pretty clear afterwards that he would be every bit as ruthless as contractual agreements allowed and then backed that claim up with action that mirrored this stern approach. The rebuild was on.

June & July bought some early transfer action with Keates nailing what must have been his number one priority by snatching Andy Cook from Tranmere’s grasp. The subsequent, relatively quick additions of Ginnelly and Ismail signalled the intent of how we were going to play and feed Cook.

And then nothing. Time and again Keates suggested that both additions and departures were close, only for deals to be scuppered. The clock was ticking loudly, nerves were fraying. And whilst everyone else seemed to lose their heads the manager remained calm, held his nerve and at the very last minute pulled a rabbit or four out of the hat.

The auction for Amadou Bakayoko certainly helped (don’t be surprised if he does really well – Bristol Rovers have an impeccable record of identifying untapped potential in strikers) and this combined with the ugly spat between Tranmere & Boreham Wood that spilled out Morgan Ferrier’s buy-out clause to make the low money / decent sell on clause purchase of Ferrier economically possible. Add in the known quantities of Isaiah Osbourne and Jack Fitzwater and the promise of Kane Wilson and Keates went into the opening day of this season on the back of a pretty effective summer. It wasn’t exactly the hardest bar to climb above but this has been our best transfer window since the shutters-up tweet of January 2016.

This season has obviously started well, the team Keates puts out are the absolute epitome of the player who graced our midfield in the late nineties / early noughties and again in the Dickie Dosh Championship season. What’s more the atmosphere around the place is excitedly brilliant. Currently there is an unmistakable similarity to the atmosphere, expectation and surprise that preceded the start of 98/99 and whilst I’m not in any way suggesting that the next eight months will pan out in similar levels of magnificence I honestly don’t see any way that it can possibly be as miserable as the past two. That alone is progress.

This is a team in the whole meaning of the word. They work as one, win as one, draw as one and will eventually lose as one. Currently the sum as a whole looks greater than sum of the individual parts, and this is part of the undoubted attraction to them. They have a plan, they understand their roles within the team, protect their goal like their lives depend on it, revel in their individual battles and attack with breath-taking speed.

They’re exciting, honest, demanding of each other and, as last Saturday again proved, they don’t accept defeat especially easily. If there is any fear, and there must be some, they’re doing a bloody good job of hiding it.

They’re also proving that you can get results in this division by putting round pegs in round holes, by being organised, fit and disciplined and that 4-4-2 is far from dead. They respect their manager, each other and the shirt they’re wearing and as long as they do this it’s pretty evident they will receive at least the same in return from those of us who pay to follow them.

Last but absolutely not least, they are easy to follow and a genuine joy to watch.

I also love the suit. It’s a small touch (pun not intended) but unquestionably demonstrates who is leading this team. The physio carries the bucket, the fitness & conditioning guy puts on his trackies and the manager wears the suit.

In summary, I guess that the last few paragraphs prove the point that it was pointless for my son to ask me to be balanced about Dean Keates, but similarly I don’t think I’m over egging the pudding. Yes the football is a little more functional than the purists might like but it’s a practical solution to an impractical budget. And no-one will ever remember the Ray Graydon era for 65% possession and total football.

There will be lows – it’s impossible to have a team this young, inexperienced or stepping us so many levels without a few winless streaks. Confidence will come and go. But, as of now, we all enjoy the weekend knowing that win, lose or draw we have a team and a manager who will fight for every point and we can be proud of. We will do well to remember this in the tough(er) times.

Things are good right now and, as far as the football side of things go, we appear to be a happy club. I just worry about how empty Dan Mole’s Saturday nights are without a twitter feed full of sack the clown notifications but I guess he’ll cope somehow. Credit where it’s due by the way – that £5 Northampton ticket offer was a major call that turned into an absolute masterstroke. Without that, and the win I truly believe it generated, the landscape might be significantly different today.

But it isn’t.

And the turn-around in team performance, aspirations and atmosphere inside five months is verging upon astonishing.

We are Walsall, and we always will be irrespective of who is manager or how we play. But when we’re like this I feel it reminds us of who and what Walsall truly are and it brings all of us closer together.

I’m also acutely aware that I’m falling head over heels for this incarnation and I’ve no intention of fighting it.

Team and fans together. Mojo intact and long may this continue.

We are back. This is Walsall. Thanks Dean.